how toxicity drove me to leave my unicorn job

Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison

“The function, the very serious function of racism (sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.) is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being… None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison

So appreciative for my undergraduate experience at Oberlin, having professors who believed in me when I had no idea where I was going, a space that allowed me to figure out who I was (a queer woman excited about geology), that in my last year of my Master’s program, I decided to pursue a PhD. I wanted to be that professor, to create that environment, for someone else.

Almost twenty years later, I am leaving academia. I resigned my tenured position in June. While I am super excited about my next step, I hate the reason I am taking it. I can no longer work for an institution that does not value the wellbeing of every member of its community. It is not only wrong, it is destroying my mental health. So many have asked – was it really that bad? yes and no. It’s not one incident. It is the accumulation of rude comments, back handed compliments, overt actions against me, and more than anything, all the gaslighting from colleagues and administrators around it.

My story is not unique. It is, honestly, rather commonplace – which is the problem and the reason that so many are leaving academia as part of the great resignation.

I am grateful for all my privilege. It has allowed me to endure, allowed me to take leave for my mental health. I am grateful for all my science sisters who not only support me in the teary moments but who also work with me to help change the system.

I sent the following narrative to several senior faculty members who have silently supported me through the years, as well as administrators in Human Resources. I honestly expected little. BUT it was cathartic to send and I hope it helps add to the narrative that leadership matters.

Yes, I am a successful scientist. I have many papers in top tier journals, I have put forth hypotheses built upon by others. I have earned awards. I have raised over $8 million in research grants as a PhD scientist. I am an excellent teacher. My students are amazing & appreciative. However, none of this erases the bullying behavior of my colleagues. All of these things just mask the mistreatment with splashy front-page stories on the school’s website. I still feel like I do not belong.

Academia is not a leaky pipeline, it is a hostile obstacle course (Berhe et al. 2022), i.e., it is not a supply problem and thus we can’t solve it via recruitment efforts. Until we recognize the systems we operate in are seeped in historical inequities and work to change them, academia will continue to push out those who do not fit the historical narrative (cis gendered white men) of who a scientist is.

from Gramlich & Bodewits 2016

sent July 18, 2022 to the Title IX Coordinator and AVP of Human Resources at Colorado College

I was informed on July 12, 2022, that Human Resources had no record of any personnel matters involving me, despite a formal complaint being filed against me in the Fall of 2017 that led to an investigation of the person who lodged the complaint. Further, past interactions with the Dean’s Office (Siddoway, Wong, Garcia, and Chan) suggest that those meetings were also not documented.

I share this timeline and data of my experiences at Colorado College, so that I know it is documented and not “lost.” In addition, I believe it illustrates the endemic nature of bullying at the college and the toxicity that many faculty face on a regular basis. While most of the timeline provided focuses on activities within the Environmental Program and associated with my P&T process, there were several incidents where I was bullied as part of committee work or because I spoke against the “chosen narrative” of the faculty or the institution. The lack of action and follow-up on the numerous cases brought to my attention by students (e.g., assault, harassment, and bullying from peers, from faculty) that I in turn took to administrators, further eroded my confidence that the college is serious about the wellbeing of all members of its community.

I share this timeline not because I am hoping for closure, but because I know I am not the only one. I am the sixth tenure track woman in a STEM department to leave the institution since my arrival in 2014, all before me left for mental health and/or work life balance reasons.

I would like acknowledgement from the institution that my experience has been terrible, that these behaviors are problematic and wrong. Acknowledging that we can’t change the past and considering my and many other faculty’s experiences, I respectfully request that Colorado College enact a faculty code of conduct that allows all faculty to thrive within a respectful and supportive environment.

I look forward to talking with you Thursday afternoon about these matters further.

If you are interested in finding out ways to improve workplace culture in your department, at your institutions, in your lab group, check out the resources we put together on the ADVANCEGeo website.

* At this time, no acknowledgement or apology has been offered by the institution or administrators. I would like to thank my Colorado College colleagues who have reached out to me with empathy & compassion as the rumor mill churned and the news of my resignation reached them.

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